On February 1, Bill Simmons wrote a column where he asked whether Ray Lewis and Adrian Peterson were using performance-enhancing drugs. The piece was intriguing for sports fans around the nation because Lewis had announced that he would be retiring at the end of the year, his Ravens were in the Super Bowl and a recent Sports Illustrated article claimed that the linebacker had used a deer antler spray that contained a substance banned by the NFL.
Although I love football and find the Lewis saga entertaining, I was more interested in the article because of the role Peterson, who was recently named MVP, played in it. After all, he plays for my favorite team.
Before I get into the Simmons column, let me just give you my opinion on Peterson in the interest of full disclosure: a) he’s the man, b) he’s the man and c) I do find it quite surprising that he was able to challenge Eric Dickerson’s rushing record a year removed from a serious knee injury.
Right now, I acknowledge that Peterson is an outstanding athlete that is incredibly driven and has the care of the best doctors in the world, so he’s more likely than the average person to recover from an injury in the way he did.
Having said that, if a report came out from a trusted source that said the running back used performance-enhancing drugs to recover a quickly as he did, I would not immediately dismiss it. The notion that just because a person is a fan of a team or a player, doesn’t mean they will universally protect that player regardless of what they do.
One of the great things about the Internet era is that prominent sportswriters no longer have to pretend that they are neutral observers of the sport they follow. While I’ll allow myself to believe that certain people—like Grantland’s Zach Lowe (NBA) or ESPN’s Keith Law (MLB) or John Buccigross (NHL) do not have a partiality towards one team in particular—I believe the vast majority of people that are in sports have favorite teams. I mean really, you think Peter Gammons isn’t a Red Sox fan? Get the hell outta here.
What separates the people in the press box from many of the people in the stands is that they are (or, at least, not supposed to)
willing to offer unpopular information about the teams and players they love. I’ve covered the Minnesota Twins for two years and feel they are a first-class organization, but if I found out that they had strayed from the “Twins Way,” I’d be the first person to break the story…or at least seek help in breaking it. The primary reason why I support the team is because I like the way they go about winning. If that changes, so will man fanship.
Seeing that the “old way” was becoming obsolete and not for him, Simmons struck out against the establishment: he wrote online, he didn’t do reporting and he declared his allegiance to his beloved Boston teams. As a result he became the most read sportswriter of my generation.
What I learned in Simmons column in PEDs was that his time at ESPN might have warped him a little bit. He’s got a little Me, Myself and Irene thing going where Sports Fan Me is still “candid, jaded, suspicious of everyone” and trusts the almighty “internal shit detector” while ESPN Me “sticks his head in the sand and doesn’t say anything” and “occasionally pushes narratives that he doesn’t totally believe in.”
Hey, at least he’s honest.
What’s more? It’s hard for me to believe that any of his loyal readers didn’t see this coming. Many of them are skeptics themselves.
The column itself is not as daring as it claims to be. In conclusion, he believes that Lewis cheated because of the SI report and that Peterson came back naturally. He doesn’t say it, but I’m going to infer that his opinion would change if a new report came out saying that All Day used HGH to recover.
If I learned anything from “Bill Simmons Day” in the class I took with SI investigative writer George Dohrmann, who broke the deer antler story with friend and colleague David Epstein*, is that there is a little tension between SI and Mr. Simmons. Dohrmann enjoys reading Simmons when he writes about basketball, but dismisses him as a rebellious teenager figure otherwise.
During the class, we got some time to Skype with Epstein and my guess that, when pressed, they both will admit they read the Simmons piece and probably reached the same conclusion: The investigation they did drove the storyline and Simmons, like many other people, had a different impression of Lewis before the story than after it ran.
Dohrmann had actually discussed the SWATS investigation before introducing the class to Epstein. The story on his co-author is that Epstein has a background in science, not writing, and a particular interest in cycling. Instead of writing for a cycling publication, which is not incredibly popular or profitable, he sought to join SI. Apparently he pitched a story he wrote about a phenomenon that was killing young cyclists. He pitched it over and over again and finally the magazine picked up the story, ran it, and gave him a position because of his acute knowledge of science as it pertains to sports.
While researching this story, apparently Dohrmann and Epstein were sitting down with SWATS owner Mitch Ross, a former male
stripper and steroid user, and Epstein basically told this guy to his face that he was lying about the effects of “negative energy water,” “deer spray” and the like and that all this stuff was a sham. Ross freaked when Epstein started using, you know, science to verify the merits of his product and started saying, “Well, look at my body!” and using his own bulk as proof that his stuff worked.
My point in telling you this is that a) there was incredible, interesting reporting that went on here, but b) it seems to me, at least, that they were sitting on this story for a while. Remember that SI did not choose to wait until the magazine was published to release this story. It came out online right before Super Bowl media day with a picture of Ray Lewis on it and a caption below that said he used IGF-1, a substance banned by the NFL.
This was not the first time that SI released a story online before it came out in the magazine. Dohrmann’s earlier piece on UCLA losing its way was released online. Even less investigative, more anecdotal stories, like Tom Verducci’s follow-up on the Ken Caminiti steroid scandal, appeared on SI.com before they went to print. And rightfully so: Why wouldn’t every major magazine/news source just release the story when it’s done rather than when a publication comes out? They have plenty of smart writers and editors to determine when it is done and most people would rather just read it from their laptop or tablet than have to go out and get a magazine.
One of the things I really enjoyed when I got to SI was the expectation of nothing short of high quality work. Newspaper writing is full of compromise—budgets, time and space. Writing for SI, the compromises are peeled away. You generally have enough time, space and resources (though as writers, they are never enough) to produce something of outstanding quality every time. I like that.
He’s right: In theory SI should not make compromises. They should strive to produce the best work possible.
Back before the Internet, when the only way to get a large audience to read his stuff would be through a daily newspaper or weekly magazine, the daily newspaper had significantly more compromises, they had to get a paper out every day and had to fill the space, than a magazine that would allow guys, even non-investigators like Alexander Wolff and Gary Smith, ample time (well over a week, sometimes even a couple months) to get their story straight. As readers, we’re thankful for that. Smith’s most recent piece on the sexual abuse of RA Dickey and Kayla Harrison was an incredibly poignant read and there’s no way he could have done that on a rigid timetable.
The problem is that SI is still making compromises. Like many publications, the magazine itself laid off a lot of people last June and Time Inc., which owns SI, is going through another round of cuts right now. This indicates that they are pushing to get “money” articles out that will get a lot of hits and entice people to pick up their magazine…sometimes with dire consequences.
Not to harp on the Manti Te’o hoax again, but Pete Thamel came out and said that he only had two hours between the time he interviewed Te’o and when his story was due. Two hours. That’s barely enough time to transcribe the interview. Why did he have that restriction? Because a regional cover was made up with Te’o on the front and SI, which would later do another Notre Dame cover for a later issue as well, knew that that baby would sell.
Here’s the problem with that timeframe: Thamel has to have his story basically written before the Te’o interview. I know the guy’s a
pro, but nobody can transcribe an in-depth interview quickly enough to have time to not only put together all the information they’ve gathered and put their thoughts on paper, but to provide a presentable copy to their editor in under two hours. As Slate’s Josh Levin—who works for a popular, credible online-only publication—suggested, this was a fill-in-the-blank exercise. It was Mad Lib for adults.
Don’t get me wrong, I grew up in a Notre Dame family and know plenty of Golden Domers that ate this stuff up like a bowl of holy wafers, but here’s the problem: Thamel missed the story.
I get it, it’s hard to believe that Te’o would have a fake girlfriend and that the magazine wouldn’t sell as well if they had used the Baltimore Orioles cover in ND territory, but here’s the thing: Deadspin.com doesn’t have a print publication or have the resources or clout SI does and is known for using shady techniques to gather information on their last blockbuster article—the Brett Favre, Jenn Sterger dick pics deal—but they not only got a ton of hits on the article, but made SI look like absolute fools.
Think you need a publication to be taken seriously? Think again.
Instead of compromising the reputation of your magazine and writer, SI should have given Thamel more time. I’m not talking months or really even weeks: just let him really flush the situation out. Who knows? Let’s say he goes to the editor and says, “You know what, I want to look into Lennay Kekua a little more, especially because she’s not on LexisNexis and I can’t find her in Stanford’s records.”
If this were published online, on its own timetable, the editor probably goes, “Knock yourself out.” Maybe they even send Dohrmann out there. My guess is he knows how to do a reverse Google image search and then, all of a sudden, the two beat Deadspin to the punch and people are referencing SI on one of the biggest stories of the year.
Instead of just selling a lot of magazines, SI gives Thamel a chance to redeem himself after a rather poor story on Tyrann Mathieu, Dohrmann proves he’s not biased towards Notre Dame and millions of people provide links and traffic to the SI website. Hell, a couple might subscribe to the magazine again.
The thing is, SI still appears to be in panic mode. Unlike the Thamel’s Te’o opus, Dohrmann and Epstein appear to have had their story completed, knew Ray Lewis was involved, and held on to it until the day they thought it would get the most hits. In essence, instead of using their website to give their writers time to get the story straight, they appear to be using it to just get as much traffic as possible. It is all fair game, but is it really in the best interest of the company as a whole?
There probably will not be any repercussions directly stemming from the Lewis/SWATS story. It appears complete and actually is incredibly interesting, but it would have been just as intriguing if Lewis had not been involved and they just released the story on a regular timetable. Furthermore, the brand itself does not look all that much stronger because of it.
ESPN tried to deliver a deathblow to SI by signing former back page columnist Rick Reilly to a five-year, $10 million contract that expires this year. Looking back on it, they completely overpaid him. SI is wounded, but still living and, to quote Deadspin founder Will Leitch, Reilly had no place to go and got one-upped by Simmons:
Reilly essentially morphed, to quote myself, from Jim Murray to Henny Youngman. He was for all intents and purposes outhustled by a younger, hungrier man…Simmons has made Reilly look lazier and older than he actually is; his limitless ambition made it that much more apparent that Reilly seems to have seen his ESPN gig as a sort of lifetime achievement award. And the sad thing is, we’ll probably never look at Reilly the same way again. The only way you can even easily access his terrific old work is via a Deadspin column written by a man who no longer respects him.
Occasionally of late Reilly has put together a few Contract Year columns that briefly remind you of what he once was. But it has become abundantly clear that ESPN’s not going to renew that crazy contract when it expires in June 2013.
SI can sit on their high horse and say, “Haha. How’d that work out for you?” but, really, they’re looking like that Mortal Kombat character that is sitting dazed and confused after three rounds of bloody battle with the text “Finish Him!” scrolled across the screen. Here’s how you finish off SI:
I’m dead serious. Yahoo! is No. 2, head of CBS, Fox and Bleacher Report, because of their incredible staff and investigative reporting. Dan Wetzel, Adrian Wojnarowski, Jeff Passan and Co. are among the best in the business and any die-hard fan knows the site runs the best blogs in town.
The problem with Yahoo! is while they covered the Joe Paterno story well and even have done less important investigations, like Woj’s interview with a disgruntled Kevin Love, they don’t have anything like a Bill Simmons tirade on NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman or Chuck Klosterman’s interview with embattled basketball star Royce White. Essentially, Grantland is lacking investigative pieces and Yahoo! struggles with humor and human interest stories.
It’s easier said than done, but like a finishing move in Mortal Kombat, if you get the right combination you can finish off your opponent. Grantland could release a magazine almost as a formality, with articles unique to the publication as well as stuff from the website, in order to get in stores at the airport and on the bookshelf in your doctor’s office. With the combined forces of the Grantland staff and the Yahoo investigative team, they can knock SI out of their misery:
The other way looming threat to SI is Bleacher Report. Laugh if you want, but CNN is dumping SI for B/R.
Right now, Bleacher Report is the No. 4 most popular sports site and growing. There are many reasons why—a great editorial staff, incredible programmers and they have nailed online nuances like Google trends—but ultimately it comes down to the writers. Not only do they have the power of the masses, but there are myriad young, aspiring and talented people writing for the site because of the way they develop writers, build a platform for them and the access they provide to sporting events.
As the newspapers and magazines have failed to provide stable jobs for writers, young people have gravitated towards B/R as stable ground for them to make their mark. Stigmas be damned, this is a great place to start. The problem is that the site doesn’t really provide a place for you once you turn, oh, 27 and want a living wage so you can provide for a family.
I could see Simmons seeking independence from ESPN. He has suggested so in an oral history of the company and you can even tell in the Lewis PED column that he feels a little weighed down by its corporate nature. So what better place for him to go than Bleacher Report?
Hear me out.
As I have written before, Simmons is the quintessential Bleacher Report writer: He was written for next-to-nothing at the beginning of his career, honed his voice, got on a big platform and the rest is history. He was doing for AOL what hundreds, if not thousands, of aspiring writers are doing at B/R, SB Nation and other independent blogs right now: Learning the trade and trying to get recognized.
Here’s what B/R does: They take that sweet, sweet Turner money, toss a couple bucks his way and let him write 3000-word columns on the front page of the site whenever he damn well pleases. Bleacher already has stellar Lead Writers they’ve poached from around the web (Dan Levy is my personal favorite), but nobody with Simmons’ influence. The Sports Guy jacks up the site’s hit rates ergo the company gets more ad revenue and they hopefully starts paying not only the Trends and Traffic guys, but also Level II Featured Columnists and high-level Analysts. The goal for the site still would be to get one of their guys a big-time job, but by paying more people, they would give their writers more time to develop and, in turn, if a few of these guys go on to a national site (ESPN, Yahoo!), a sport-specific site (NFL.com, NHL.com), a larger newspaper (The Los Angeles Times or Minneapolis Star Tribune) or even a magazine that will eventually find the right balance between print and online (SI).
Bleacher Report could use Simmons as a carrot for a younger writer (“Hey, you could be just like him if you stick it out long
enough!”) while becoming an asset, rather than a quote-unquote “bane,” on the rest of the industry. They’ll say, “Hey, we’ll harbor the best writers, teach them how to get their thoughts on paper, analyze a game and the ins and outs of search engine optimization and then turn them over to you for the reporting side of things.” They could create an ecosystem where people start at B/R and the big boys choose the best of the best and mold them into reporters. Essentially, Bleacher Report symbol comes to represent what the company does: Provide a middle ground between the fan in the bleachers and the professional in the press box.
So here’s how this all ties together:
Every writer learns at some point that there is no going at this alone. You have to find the right balance between your interests and what is best for the company:
The fan in Pete Thamel probably wanted to look into Lennay Kekua a little more and ensure he had the story right, but the corporate side of him told him he had to meet the deadline to help SI make money.
The fan George Dohrmann and David Epstein probably wanted to get their research out as soon as it was completed, but the corporate side of them knew Ray Lewis was involved and wanted to ensure the site got lots of hits.
The fan in Bill Simmons sees emails from fans wondering if Lewis and Adrian Peterson cheated in their recovery from injury and wants to write a column about it, but the corporate side of him says that because he’s not a reporter, he needs to steer clear of the topic.
I had a similar situation my senior year at Santa Clara. I knew that if I had a big story to pitch to Sports Illustrated, I could become the next Steve Rushin: a Minnesotan that went to a Jesuit school (Rushin went to Marquette) that got an SI job two weeks after graduation and became a Senior Writer at age 25. I was going to take over for Joe Posnanski on the Curiously Long Columns blog and generate millions upon millions of hits for the website, creating a financial windfall for the company and creating jobs for talented writers.
It was a pipe dream, of course.
Things looked good at first. While I was unhappy that I couldn’t graduate early like 25 percent of my classmatesand cover the
entire Twins season, I was in a class taught by a Sports Illustrated writer, had another pretty cool class on the Theology of Marriage taught by the legendary Fred Parella and had an opportunity in my Journalism Capstone to write a story on how baseball players chose whether or not to attend college or go right to the pros after being drafted.
I got off to an early start in the capstone class. My teacher asked us to get 10 sources and have a 3500-word article rough draft completed by the end of the second week of class. I was the only one that pulled it off. I had interviews with current and aspiring players, coaches and media members. I had contacts that knew scouts. And I had more interviews lined up. I got my draft back and realized that it had only been read halfway through.
As time went on I got lost and didn’t know where to turn. I had gone to Dohrmann early on, and he was helpful, but he was a busy man (he was doing the SWATS reporting and fending off lawsuits by people down in SoCal after the UCLA story) and I felt selfish getting him involved. I knew going into the class that while a handful of my 15 other classmates had journalistic aspirations, but most of them really loved our professor (she is particularly popular among many of the students) and wanted to pass so they could graduate. Class time was spent disproportionately on either berating everyone for not meeting deadlines or having a roundtable discussion on “life after college.”
I am blessed to say I have an awfully supportive family and lived with seven of the greatest people in the world. Along with a few other close friends, I spent most of my time speaking to my housemates about my worries about what was to come and, really, I realized I was in pretty good shape. SI job or no SI job, I blog with many talented writers here at FanMan, get a ton of support in my development over at Bleacher Report and have had opportunities to write for places like Stadium Journey and Hockey’s Future.
At the same time, I wanted my SI pipe dream to come true.
I stopped going to class. Instead I would spend time calling or emailing current players, speaking to various media members for tidbits here and there and going to the ballpark and trying to track down scouts. My biggest problem was that I couldn’t get many of the players I had covered at Santa Clara that had been drafted and dropped out of minor league ball to go on the record about their experience and why they left. I also had trouble getting scouts to go on the record. Some just said I was too young, some would give me contact information, but hang up the phone and others said they’d meet me after the game and then quickly dip out and drive away before I had a chance to grab them.
It was a week before the paper had to be completed. In the coming weeks people inside and outside of the industry would read it and I would receive a verbal evaluation at my teacher’s house in front of all my peers. A person in my class had given me the number of her cousin, a former Twins fifth round pick that left baseball due to injury, but I wasn’t sure how to approach the story and didn’t want to waste my opportunity to speak to him.
I literally had a breakdown. I felt I was so close to something big, something that would get me my dream job, and I saw my opportunity slipping away from me.
The copy I presented to my evaluators was incomplete at best. “Lacks direction,” one person noted. “Too many hyperlinks,” said another; only to have another evaluator say he liked them. “Too many choppy sentences,” said a classmate of mine that had graduated early and was working as an intern at SI. “Not enough detail”…”Too many characters”…”Too esoteric”…
I was in a dark, dark place. At that point, I would have rather pulled down my pants and pooped in front of everyone than have them read my story.
As I wrote earlier I pulled Dohrmann, one of the evaluators, aside after being pilloried and apologized, “Sorry this sucks,” I said. “It was so promising in the beginning.”
He sat me down and said that it was clearly well researched, but needed a focus. I told him that I knew that, but nobody could help me find one. He responded by saying it was a story about choice.
I eventually called up the former Twins player, got a great hour-and-a-half interview and was connected the guy who scouted him on the phone, finally getting a much-needed voice in the story…and had one hell of a conversation with the man.
At that point it was too late. I went back and read Verducci’s Ken Caminiti follow-up, which focused on four former Twins, one that
cheated and went pro and three others that didn’t and discussed the choice the one player made to use steroids and the regrets he harbored about that decision—something the three other players did not feel, even though they never went pro.
I realized why this guy has his job. He essentially wrote the story I wanted to write, but his was 10 times better. That’s why he’s the king.
In my last class, which came after the evaluation, my teacher basically said I had something that would pass. It wasn’t satisfying; I wanted to do better. At that point I had another little freak out.
The Corporate Me wanted to say, “Fuck it” and publish the story on Bleacher Report. It was intriguing, well researched and probably would get read. The Sports Fan side of me said, “This isn’t done yet” and I could do better. The next time around I’d get the interviews I need, seek help from people willing to read through the entire piece and offer constructive criticism rather than just challenges* and try to get as many subjects to talk on the record in person or over the phone rather than by email or informal text messages.
*For example: “The story is about choice, so ask your subjects about how they went about making their decision and if they regret it” versus “Go and get five more sources by next week.”
The story remains written, but unpublished. At this point it seems like what the people I worked with down at the auto shop would call a core engine: It is too damaged to actually work, but there are salvageable parts so it’s at least worth something.
As for me, I still write for Bleacher Report, where I feel I improve every single day because of the advice and direction offered there. If I want a salary, my best bet is probably at Target or Chipotle rather than the Star Tribune or SI. And, hey, I’m still young.
I’m still finding the middle ground between Sports Fan Me and Corporate Me. I still need to learn when to inject myself in a story and when to stay out of it. I still need to decide how to get read, but also get the complete story.
When I get down on myself, I’ll occasionally look at a quote from Tom Verducci’s interview with Jeff Pearlman, where he discusses being a young graduate from Penn State with sportswriting ambition:
Go for it. I never stopped to think about how darn competitive journalism is—and specifically, baseball writing. I never stopped to think about it when I first applied to 30 or so newspapers as a graduating senior at Penn State and received rejection letters from every one of them. Why? I wanted to write and so I knew that was what I was going to do. And if you are working at something you are passionate about, you are going to do it with enthusiasm and curiosity, which are the requirements of improvement, which will continue to propel you forward.
As I cross the bridge between “punk-ass college student” and “paid professional” I realize that a few of the planks might be missing and at times I feel a little like Donkey telling Shrek “I’m looking down!” but I realize the best approach is to look toward the goal at the other end rather than the peril beneath me.
In the end, I know that Verducci, Rushin and Simmons were in my shoes one day, and that their writing has inspired me to write 5000-plus words today.
That, in and of itself, is pretty cool.
Tom Schreier writes for TheFanManifesto. He can followed on Twitter at @tschreier3. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.